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Sport24.co.za | Stormers: So much leather … so little sting

Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

Cape Town – Whatever happened to that oft-stated desire by the bosses at Newlands for the Stormers to recapture a “Western Province rugby” sort of attacking ethic?

It only seems to remain a pipe dream; all big talk.

Never mind months, it has been many years since the Western Cape outfit produced the kind of crowd-pleasing, expressive and skill-laden fare that would all but fill the time-honoured stadium – including at domestic Currie Cup level – on a consistent basis.

Saturday was just another extremely costly, deeply frustrating modern instance where the Stormers, in front of an unremarkable long-weekend crowd, did so much of the groundwork (or read: murderous forward endeavour, for the most part) to tee up a much-needed victory against the Brumbies.

Instead they slipped to a costly 19-17 Super Rugby setback against the similarly mid-table side, despite governing two thirds of the territory and possession, and their offensive game proving all too sterile, uncertain and lacking in cohesion.

It was a swift, sobering correction after their Australasian tour drought-breaking triumph over the Rebels last weekend, also meaning that they are rooted to the foot of the SA conference instead of soaring to second, which would have been the case with the right result against the grimly-motivated, heroic-defending visitors from Canberra.

The fairly scant consolation for Robbie Fleck’s charges is that the group only appears to get more claustrophobic by the week: only four points now separate top (Bulls) from bottom.

We will also see the cat even more engulfed by pigeons should the Stormers bounce back – and who’s to say they won’t, considering the bumpy, hard-to-read fortunes that characterise almost all Super Rugby teams this year? – by beating the very Bulls at Newlands next Saturday.

For that to happen, though, the Capetonians may have to do so against mounting odds.

Yes, revenge should be a pretty strong motivator, considering the unpalatable memories down south of the 40-3 thrashing in the first-round encounter at Loftus.

But the Stormers also had to sweat blood in what was almost like an uncompromising Test match against the Brumbies, and that after only returning from Australia a few days previously.

They could really have done with a bye immediately after the four-match tour but now, having huffed and puffed to no avail in their first game back, must brace themselves for an immensely energy-sapping fortnight against the Bulls and Jaguares (in Buenos Aires) respectively before the overdue opportunity of a week off.

In addition, the injury toll in the squad is mounting – they are using what might be branded third-choice personnel in certain berths – and lock is an area where alarm bells will be ringing especially loudly.

Both chosen second-rowers against the Brumbies, Cobus Wiese and Salmaan Moerat, left the field prematurely – after strong shifts – due to concussion-related issues, simply meaning that they join the likes of Eben Etzebeth, JD Schickerling and Chris van Zyl on the present side-lines.

Springbok pack stalwarts like Steven Kitshoff, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Bongi Mbonambi must wonder, too, just what it is they are doing wrong (quick answer: it’s not them) to end up on the losing side several times this season when they have done so much to establish a platform for the altogether happier outcome.

Although forwards naturally play a far from inconsequential role in attacking play, too, the Stormers continue to exhibit a rank inability to get their backline functioning with any semblance of regular crispness and penetration.

It is reflected in the fact that one of their two tries against the Brumbies was an open-to-discussion penalty one, and the other the result of an industrial maul.

The Stormers are the lowest “points for” team in the competition at this point, with 180 posted from nine outings: that is an average of exactly 20 points per game (poor for this often high-scoring tournament) and only they and the Waratahs (192) have not yet gone beyond the 200-mark.

Their thinning of personnel options also comes at a time when next week’s derby foes, by contrast, have started to welcome back key figures like RG Snyman and Warrick Gelant from injury.

The Bulls will also be fresher, having come off their own Easter bye.

SuperSport pundit and most-capped Springbok Victor Matfield also made the point, post-match on Saturday, that if the Stormers were rattled by the Brumbies’ speed off the line, they might find the Bulls even more of a handful in that department.

He also suggested they revisit their flyhalf plans, considering the looming threat of runaway Bok first choice for the visiting cause, Handre Pollard.

“There was nothing on attack for the Stormers … all one-off (runner) stuff. Josh Stander was often too deep (at No 10) and I would like to see Damian Willemse get another chance at flyhalf; he at least goes to the line.”

Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):

Friday: Crusaders v Lions, 09:35; Sunwolves v Highlanders, 12:00. Saturday: Hurricanes v Chiefs, 09:35; Waratahs v Sharks, 11:45; Stormers v Bulls, 15:05; Jaguares v Brumbies, 23:40. Byes: Reds, Rebels, Blues.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Sport24.co.za | Reds punish woeful Sharks

Durban – The Reds added to the Sharks’ woes when they won their Super Rugby encounter at Kings Park on Friday.

As it happened: Sharks v Reds

The men from Brisbane won 21-14, after leading 14-7 at half-time.

It was the Sharks’ fifth defeat of the season in nine games.

Bryce Hegarty, Chris Feauai-Sautia and Tate McDermott’s tries saw the visitors to victory, as the Sharks missed a chance to go top in the South African conference. Their tries came via Kerron van Vuuren and Daniel du Preez as the hosts struggled for any real fluidity and made numerous errors both in attack and defence.

The Reds went into the interval leading 14-7 thanks to Hegarty and Feauai-Sautia’s tries, with Van Vuuren hitting back for the home team.

Brad Thorn’s side didn’t take long to hit the ground running as on three minutes a line break from hooker Alex Mafi led to quick recycled ball and Hegarty then spotted a hole and backed himself from 20 metres out for the opener. He slotted the simple conversion for a 7-0 lead.

The Sharks had chances to chip away at that buffer but instead opted for the corner, which did not result in points as the contest wore on.

It backfired too as the Reds soon doubled their lead on 20 minutes, captain Samu Kerevi’s bust then seeing him offload to Feauai-Sautia for a try.

Fortunately for the Sharks they did respond before half-time as a lineout drive saw Van Vuuren get over and while they had further chances which weren’t taken late on in the half, the hosts would still have fancied their chances of turning things around in front of their Durban fans.

It had looked as though neither side would trouble the scoreboard in the opening 20 minutes of the second period in an error-strewn spell, but the Reds then finally clicked with offloads aplenty down the right seeing Hegarty and Scott Higginbotham combine to put scrumhalf McDermott away.

That converted try moved the Reds into a 21-7 lead and with the Sharks making error after error in attack, it seemed an away win was likely.

So it proved as despite a late try from Sharks No 8 Du Preez off the base of a scrum, the Reds would hold on for a rare win in Durban.

In next weekend’s action, the Sharks take on the Waratahs in Sydney (Saturday, April 27), while the Reds will enjoy a bye.

Scorers:

Sharks

Tries: Kerron van Vuuren, Daniel du Preez

Conversions: Robert du Preez, Curwin Bosch

Reds

Tries: Bryce Hegarty, Chris Feauai-Sautia, Tate McDermott

Conversions: Bryce Hegarty (2), Hamish Stewart

Teams:

Sharks

15 Curwin Bosch, 14 Sbu Nkosi, 13 Kobus van Wyk, 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Robert du Preez, 9 Louis Schreuder (captain), 8 Daniel du Preez, 7 Jacques Vermeulen, 6 Philip van der Walt, 5 Hyron Andrews, 4 Ruben van Heerden, 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Kerron van Vuuren, 1 Beast Mtawarira 

Substitutes: 16 Fez Mbatha, 17 Juan Schoeman, 18 Thomas du Toit, 19 Tyler Paul, 20 Jean-Luc du Preez, 21 Cameron Wright, 22 Marius Louw, 23 Aphelele Fassi

Reds

15 Hamish Stewart, 14 Sefa Naivalu , 13 Chris Feauai-Sautia, 12 Samu Kerevi (captain), 11 Jack Hardy, 10 Bryce Hegarty, 9 Tate McDermott, 8 Scott Higginbotham, 7 Liam Wright, 6 Angus Scott-Young, 5 Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, 4 Izack Rodda, 3 Taniela Tupou, 2 Alex Mafi, 1 Harry Hoopert

Substitutes: 16 Brandon Paenga-Amosa, 17 JP Smith, 18 Ruan Smith, 19 Harry Hockings, 20 Adam Korczyk, 21 Moses Sorovi, 22 Duncan Paia’aua, 23 Jock Campbell

Sport24.co.za | CWC Proteas: THIS will be their sore thumb!

Cape Town – The widespread extent of the fairly glaring “non-batsmen” among their bowlers could prove a decisive drawback for South Africa at the looming Cricket World Cup.

On the bright side, remember this much: the Proteas, who are due to reveal their 15-strong party later on Thursday, should almost unfailingly put out an attack which, on paper, is as challenging and penetrative as any at the tournament.

But if their frontline batting only confirms fears that it is less heavyweight both in reputation and statistical delivery than the country has boasted in several earlier generations of SA one-day international squads, the potential for a worrying “perfect storm” at the crease could surface in some earnest.

There is little reason, according to my information, not to believe that convenor Linda Zondi will name the following six out-and-out bowlers in the intended CWC mix: Kagiso Rabada, Dale Steyn, Lungi Ngidi, Anrich Nortje, Imran Tahir and Tabraiz Shamsi.

All-rounder duties will be shared between Andile Phehlukwayo, Dwaine Pretorius and veteran middle-order batsman JP Duminy.

But that will also mean that the half-dozen bowling specialists listed – even being mindful of the fact that they certainly won’t all feature in XIs together — effectively only pile additional pressure on the batting department to fire with suitable consistency.

For truth be told, South Africa’s potential for tail-end effectiveness – in the instances where it may become necessary — will be more limited than that of several major rival nations.

It is a cruel comparison, considering just how notably opposite a phenomenon currently exists in the camp of England (who will also be among the hottest favourites for the tournament), but the host nation will have the incredibly useful luxury of knowing that they bat so deep that any top- or even middle-order crisis in specific games will not automatically be a train smash for them.

England are also the Proteas’ tournament-opening opponents at The Oval on May 30, a game that could set up Faf du Plessis and company for a rousing campaign, slightly against prevailing odds … or place them on the back foot quicker than they would like for later semi-final qualification in the round-robin event.

Even at this fairly long-range point, it is perhaps educative to look at some of the key batting stats of each squad’s (likely) six least proficient willow-wielders.

In the provisional England CWC group announced on Wednesday, that group would consist of Mark Wood, Chris Woakes, David Willey, Adil Rashid, Liam Plunkett and Tom Curran.

They will also, of course, have the enviable access to at least two quite genuine all-rounders in the form of Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali, who boast as many as 11 Test and six ODI centuries between them and can also be entrusted with copious amounts of World Cup bowling.

But there’s still a sobering amount of proven blade-power among that English “bottom six”, if you do the perfectly reasonable exercise of examining both the current ODI batting stats of the group and their first-class ones (the latter generally serve as an especially good yardstick of consistency and competency at the crease).

Using the ODI figure first and first-class next, these are the batting averages of England’s specialist bowlers: Woakes 26.64 and 35.34, Curran 23.66 and 17.72, Rashid 19.59 and 32.48, Plunkett 19.46 and 25.00, Willey 18.84 and 26.57, Wood 9.00 and 21.38.

Now peruse the Proteas’ own “worst-batting” six: Ngidi 20.00 and 5.14, Rabada 14.35 and 12.00, Steyn 9.35 and 13.71, Tahir 8.11 and 14.22, Nortje 8.00 and 15.75, and Shamsi 0.00 and 8.01.

Combine the ODI batting averages of the English six studied here and you get a figure of 19.53: the South African equivalent figure is 9.96.

Similarly, when you do that exercise with the first-class batting averages, the English group present a figure of 26.41 and their SA counterparts 11.47.

There is a considerable gulf, on both occasions.

Don’t get me wrong, the Proteas will have comforting strengths in plenty of areas at this World Cup; I am not writing them off.

My statistical and observational fears on the bottom-end batting front may also prove a spectacular irrelevance from late May through to mid-July, and there will be some teams boasting rather more similar drawbacks to theirs in the tail.

But I have a nagging hunch, nevertheless, that that bottom-end batting frailty COULD come home to bite South Africa at inconvenient times during CWC 2019.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Sport24.co.za | Careless United undone by Messi double as Barca cruise

Barcelona – Lionel Messi pounced on two Manchester United mistakes to score twice and end their hopes of another Camp Nou comeback as Barcelona breezed into the Champions League semi-finals on Tuesday.

After an excellent start, United were undone twice in four minutes by Messi, who first nicked the ball off the careless Ashley Young and then watched as a weak shot from distance squirmed underneath David de Gea. 

Philippe Coutinho, in perhaps his best performance of the season, added a third with a curling effort into the top corner and by the end, an outclassed United might have been relieved the score was not more traumatic than 3-0, 4-0 on aggregate. 

A dizzying opening spell, in which Marcus Rashford had hit the crossbar, was long-forgotten, even if it could offer Barcelona’s next opponents some encouragement. 

Liverpool, who take a 2-0 lead to Porto on Wednesday, are the most likely obstacle between Barca and their first Champions League final since they last won this tournament in 2015. Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane might feel encouraged. 

Instead, United’s pair of early errors made this another night about Messi and ensured any faint hopes of repeating the comeback against Paris Saint-Germain, or even the famous 1999 rescue act against Bayern Munich, on this same pitch, were dashed. 

Messi now has his 109th and 110th Champions League goals and, potentially, three extra matches to reduce the gap on Cristiano Ronaldo’s 126, after Juventus were dumped out by Ajax. Barcelona’s fans celebrated that too. 

United’s coach Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had urged his strikers to be more lethal here but it felt ominous that even before kick-off, Rashford, Anthony Martial, Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez had hit 42 goals this season, while Messi on his own had 43. 

Around an hour before kick-off, Alex Ferguson was on the side of the pitch, shaking hands with Ryan Giggs and sharing words with Solskjaer, the scorer of that goal against Munich here 20 years ago. 

They could have hardly have asked for a better start. United were brilliant for eight minutes and could have been ahead within 30 seconds as Rashford raced onto a curving Paul Pogba pass and toed away a shot, which Marc-Andre ter Stegen bravely left to graze his own crossbar. 

Barca were flustered, so much so the crowd even cheered with relief when Arthur Melo played his team’s first convincing pass. 

Then, Barcelona had their own eight-minute flurry as United almost conceded a penalty, ruled out after Fred took the ball before bringing down Ivan Rakitic, and then did concede, twice, to Messi. 

Both could have been avoided, even if Young’s turn on the edge of his own box was punished in devastating fashion. Young lunged in to atone for his mistake but Messi skipped away from him, poked it through Fred’s legs and then whipped the ball past into the corner. 

The second was simpler. Fred and Scott McTominay closed in on Coutinho and the ball spilled out to Messi, whose dribbling shot with his right foot should have drawn a routine save. Instead, De Gea let is squirm under his body for 2-0. 

Pogba lashed out at the increasingly influential Arthur and Barca could have had a third before half-time, De Gea scrambling across to save on the line when Sergi Roberto should have finished. 

Messi could have had his hat-trick too after Luis Suarez found him with a superb cutback and there was an almost comical sequence in the second half when the Argentinian played with his United chasers before finally being bundled over by McTominay. 

Rashford might have made it interesting if he had controlled Pogba’s ball over the top but Barcelona were in exhibition mode, helped by a vintage Coutinho curler after he had cut inside from the left. 

Messi even attempted a bicycle kick and there were celebrations from the home fans when news went round that Ajax had taken the lead in Turin. They believe this is their year.

Sport24.co.za | Blitzboks never stopped believing in Singapore final

Cape Town – A variety of adjectives were used by elated members of the Springbok Sevens team following their dramatic 20-19 win over Fiji in the final of the Singapore Sevens on Sunday.

The Blitzboks trailed 19-0 with five minutes left of the match before tries by Kurt-Lee Arendse, Angelo Davids and Ryan Oosthuizen. Selvyn Davids, who already kicked a conversion, then stepped up and added a penalty goal that pushed them into a 20-19 lead.

Fittingly it was also Selvyn Davids, who earlier in the half saved a certain try with a desperate tackle, who kicked the ball into touch in the final act and sent Blitzboks supporters into raptures.

Oosthuizen, who scored the third try in the comeback, felt “very proud” about the “awesome” performance. He said the match will be unforgettable memory for him.

“I will always remember this match and the way we fought back. That is what the Blitzboks stand for, we never give up,” said Oosthuizen, who added that the calmness of coach Neil Powell at half-time helped.

“He said we needed to trust the processes and that we needed to score first. It happened, and the win came because we executed that plan.”

Impi Visser, who scored important tries against Samoa and the USA in their the playoffs earlier in the day, admitted some nervous moments.

“There was one time in the second half where we knocked the ball on and I thought ‘this is going to be tight’, but we never stopped playing and trying,” said Visser.

“This was just an awesome feeling and a huge thumbs-up for the players and our system. Everyone contributed, which made it even more special.”

Arendse, playing in only his third tournament, said it felt like he was still dreaming. Powell admitted the victory left him speechless and Arendse, shy by nature anyway, was still taking in the emotions of the win.

“Character and team work. We did not give up. We worked hard together, as a team, to get those tries. This is just lovely,” Arendse said almost introspectively.

Justin Geduld, who passed Fabian Juries and moved into the third spot for Blitzboks’ career points scored in the World Rugby Sevens Series, said the younger players deserved praise: “They really kept going. We lost our captain Siviwe Soyizwapi and leading try-scorer in Singapore before the final and Angelo Davids, in only his second tournament, stepped up and played very well.”

“The younger guys who are part of the SA Rugby Sevens Academy train with us and hats off to the management and staff who prepare these players for moments such as these.”

Geduld took over the captaincy from Soyizwapi and rallied the troops in the second half.

“I told the guys to keep believing in our processes,” said Geduld.

“Fiji played well in the first half – they kept the ball and used their opportunities – but we knew we just needed that first try to get going. There was a good feeling amongst the squad all weekend that we can achieve something and I reminded them about that.”

Sport24.co.za | Powell on Blitzbok fight back: ‘It was a gutsy performance’

Cape Town – The Blitzboks staged an amazing comeback in the final of the Singapore Sevens to beat Fiji 20-19 on Sunday.

South Africa were down 19-0 at the break, following three first half tries by Fiji, but stunned their opponents in the second half at the Singapore National Stadium.

The Blitzboks scored three tries, by Kurt-Lee Arendse, Angelo Davids and Ryan Oosthuizen, with one converted, which brought them within two points with a minute to play.

A penalty awarded near the Fijian posts gave Selvyn Davids the opportunity to kick a penalty goal, which gave South Africa a 20-19 lead.

One more play followed, but the defence held out and gave the Blitzboks their second tournament win in the World Rugby Sevens Series in the 2018/19 season. They also won in Vancouver last month.

Springbok Sevens coach Neil Powell was full of praise for his squad, who started the final without their injured captain, Siviwe Soyizwapi.

“It was a gutsy performance,” said Powell.

“They really never gave up. We spoke at half-time about the importance of scoring first after the break and that happened and the guys kept on playing.

“It was important that we held onto the ball in that second half. The young players are really coachable and listened to all the advice and instructions and it worked out for us in the end. They did score first, although only after two minutes, but that gave the belief the needed momentum. I am almost speechless on how they pulled this one back.”

Powell said his team struggled in the first halves of their matches at the tournament, but played very well after the break: “We were often our own worst enemies, but once we got things going, we really played well.”

The disappointment of finishing seventh in Hong Kong is now behind them.

“It was tough this week, the guys were down after the disappointing show there. Their comeback makes me very proud,” said Powell, who also praised his management.

“We needed to make sure the guys had energy this weekend and changed our approach to achieve that. It worked well and I need to compliment the management for their roles in getting the guys ready to go again.”

Soyizwapi, who missed the final due to a knee injury, said it was hard to describe the emotions after their amazing comeback.

“They guys kept on believing in our structure and by doing so, their natural abilities came to the fore. They expressed themselves. I kept believing, this is what we were working for. It was incredible,” said Soyizwapi, who also praised the younger players in the squad.

“The newer guys learned so much, but they also gave so much effort. We will all be better because of this experience.”

Not only did the Blitzboks claim a second tournament title in the 2018/19 World Rugby Sevens Series, they also improved their standing on the overall log.

The win extended their lead over England to 14 points. South Africa remain fourth on the log, with England in fifth sport. The top four sides automatically qualify for the Rugby Sevens event at the Olympic Games in Japan in 2020.

Sport24.co.za | Chiefs edge gallant Blues in Hamilton thriller

Cape Town – The Chiefs were made to work hard before defeating the Blues in their Super Rugby encounter at the FMG Stadium in Hamilton on Saturday morning.

As it happened: Chiefs v Blues

The home side won 33-29 after leading 14-10 at half-time.

“Japanese Jonah” Ataata Moeakiola try, with his first touch of the ball, lifted the Chiefs to a 21-10 lead.

In a relentless closing 35 minutes, the ageless Ma’a Nonu led a spirited Blues response with two of their three second-half tries.

But each time they closed the gap, the Chiefs were able to score again to maintain their advantage. 

After a disappointing four losses to start the season, the Chiefs have now strung together a draw and three consecutive victories and lifted themselves off the bottom of the New Zealand conference. 

They also extended their unbeaten run against their nearest neighbours to 15 consecutive games. 

“It’s huge, it’s massive to get a win in the New Zealand conference,” a satisfied Chiefs captain Brodie Retallick said.

“We came out here on our home ground and wanted to prove a point and fix up the first few rounds.

“Every time we scored they came back and we were hanging on there in the end.”

In the tense battle, the Chiefs were clinging to a 14-10 lead early in the second half when their influential fullback Damian McKenzie limped off with a knee injury and Moeakiola came on to score what proved to be the decisive try. 

The Blues were first on the board with an early Otere Black penalty before the Chiefs replied with converted tries to Brad Weber and Lachlan Boshier, and the Blues came back on the stroke of half-time with a try to Melani Nanai.

When McKenzie departed soon after the restart, on came the Tongan-born Japan wing Moeakiola to score immediately and take the pressure off the Chiefs.

Moeakiola, who earned the nickname “Japanese Jonah” with a string of outstanding performances at the World Under 20 Championship in 2016, crashed over with his first touch of the ball after Chief’s standout midfielder Anton Lienert-Brown had opened up the Blues defence. 

In a relentless closing 35 minutes, Nonu scored twice from close range for the Blues and Rieko Ioane also crossed the line.

But sandwiched between the Blues tries, Boshier touched down for his second try and Jesse Parete also scored to keep the Chiefs in front.

Next week the Chiefs are up against the Lions at home while the Blues travel to Dunedin to face the Highlanders in another New Zealand derby.

Scorers:

Chiefs

Tries: Brad Weber, Lachlan Boshier (2), Ataata Moeakiola, Jesse Parete

Conversions: Damian McKenzie (2), Marty McKenzie (2)

Blues

Tries: Melani Nanai, Ma’a Nonu (2), Rieko Ioane

Conversions: Otere Black (2), Harry Plummer

Penalty: Black

Teams:

Chiefs

15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Sean Wainui, 13 Tumua Manu, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 Solomon Alaimalo, 10 Marty McKenzie, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Taleni Seu, 7 Lachlan Boshier, 6 Luke Jacobson, 5 Tyler Ardron, 4 Brodie Retallick (captain), 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Angus Ta’avao

Substitutes: 16 Samisoni Taukei’aho, 17 Ryan Coxon, 18 Sosefo Kautai, 19 Jesse Parete, 20 Pita Gus Sowakula, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Alex Nankivell, 23 Ataata Moeakiola

Blues

15 Melani Nanai, 14 Caleb Clarke, 13 TJ Faiane, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Otere Black, 9 Jonathan Ruru, 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Dalton Papalii, 6 Tom Robinson, 5 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu (captain), 3 Karl Tu’inukuafe, 2 James Parsons, 1 Ofa Tu’ungafasi

Substitutes: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Alex Hodgman, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Josh Goodhue, 20 Jed Brown, 21 Sam Nock, 22 Harry Plummer, 23 Matt Duffie

Sport24.co.za | Ramsey sparkles as Arsenal sink Napoli

Unai Emery’s side seized control of the tie with a dominant first-half performance at the Emirates Stadium.

Ramsey opened the scoring with a cool finish to cap a flowing move and the Gunners were further ahead before half-time when Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly deflected Lucas Torreira’s shot into his own net.

Arsenal couldn’t add to the lead after the break, but they had done enough to put themselves in pole position ahead of the second leg in Naples on April 18.

It was a much-needed success for Emery, who this week called on his players to embrace the pressure of regaining their Champions League status after two successive seasons out of Europe’s elite club competition.

With Arsenal sitting fifth in the Premier League after Sunday’s damaging defeat at Everton, the Gunners can no longer rely on their domestic fortunes to qualify for the Champions League.

That gives the Europa League extra importance, underlining why Emery had played strong line-ups in the tournament all season to keep the option of reaching the Champions League by lifting the trophy.

Having won the Europa League three times during his tenure as Sevilla boss, Emery knows the value of a first leg lead and he sent out an attacking line-up featuring Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Mesut Ozil.

Emery’s men were quickly on the front foot and Koulibaly showed why he is a target for Manchester United with a two brave blocks to stop shots from Aaron Ramsey and Ainsley Maitland-Niles.

Despite Koulibaly’s best efforts, Arsenal needed just 15 minutes to take the lead.

A stylish move carved Napoli open as Ramsey and Ozil exchange passes in midfield before Lacazette fed Maitland-Niles.

Ramsey had continued his run into the Napoli area and the Wales midfielder met Maitland-Niles’ pass with a composed close-range finish for his sixth goal of the season.

It was the perfect way for Ramsey to announce himself to an Italian audience ahead of his close-season move to Juventus.

Torreira is one of the midfielders who will take over from Ramsey and the Uruguayan showed why that should be a smooth transition as he helped double Arsenal’s advantage in the 25th minute.

Tigerishly dispossessing Fabian Ruiz inside the Napoli half, Torreira accelerated towards the penalty area, cleverly checked back to open up more space and drilled a low shot that took a hefty deflection off Koulibaly as it looped into the net.

Napoli are trailing a distant second in Serie A behind Juventus and had endured disappointing results in their previous two games.

The lack of cohesion and confidence in his team made it a far different experience for Napoli boss Carlo Ancelotti than his last visit to the Emirates in 2017, which ended in a 5-1 Champions League victory with Bayern Munich.

Napoli keeper Alex Meret was at full-stretch to keep out Aubameyang’s long-range blast as Arsenal threatened to embarrass the Italians.

Without a win in seven visits to England, Napoli’s hopes of ending that barren run dwindled even further when Lorenzo Insigne blazed over from close range.

Napoli tried to rally after the interval, but Koulibaly’s header was tipped over by Petr Cech, while Piotr Zielinski blew their best chance when he missed the target with only the keeper to beat.

Arsenal remained dangerous and it took a good save from Meret to deny Ramsey before Maitland-Niles was also frustrated by the over-worked Napoli keeper.

Ramsey should have put the result beyond doubt when he shot over in the closing stages, but Arsenal will still travel to Italy in confident mood next week.

Sport24.co.za | Shaw own goal hands Barca control of Man United tie

Shaw turned Luis Suarez’s header into his own net after just 12 minutes and despite being far from their best, Barca comfortably held out to edge towards a first Champions League semi-final in four years.

United produced one of the European Cup’s finest ever comebacks from a 2-0 first-leg defeat at home to Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16.

However, on the ground where manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer completed another famous fightback to win the competition as a player in 1999, United must repeat the trick at the Camp Nou in six days’ time.

Much has been made of Suarez’s Champions League goal drought on the road and while the Uruguayan has still not officially netted an away goal in the competition since September 2015, he had a huge hand in Barca’s winner.

Lionel Messi drifted in behind the United defence and his cross hung up to the back post was headed goalwards by Suarez, the ball flicking off Shaw on its way past David de Gea.

An errant offside flag briefly threatened to spoil Suarez’s delight. However, the goal was quickly given on a VAR review and the former Liverpool striker took extra glee at having the last laugh with a fist pump in front of the Stretford End.

The early goal should have settled the Spanish champions into their stride as their dominance of possession touched close to 90 percent in the opening stages.

Yet, they offered United plenty of encouragement with Sergio Busquets in particular off the pace.

Marcus Rashford shrugged off an ankle injury to start and provided by a distance United’s biggest threat.

A free-kick from the England international flew just wide inside the first five minutes and he sent another dipping effort from range just over Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s crossbar.

United defender Chris Smalling had said “bring it on” at the prospect of facing Messi on the eve of the game.

And he left the Argentine bloodied from the nose as he careered into an aerial challenge on the half-hour mark.

Messi was quickly back on his feet and into the heart of the action, but it was Philippe Coutinho who came closest to extending Barca’s advantage before the break with a thunderous low shot that De Gea did brilliantly to repel with his feet.

Moments later United could easily have been on level terms, but the hosts’ best chance of the half fell to the wrong man as Rashford picked out Diogo Dalot only for the Portuguese to completely miscue his header across goal.

Rashford, though, also failed to make proper contact with his big chance early in the second-half when Ter Stegen could only punch a cross into his path.

United enjoyed the better of the opening stages in the second half, but lacked a creative spark to open Barca up with Paul Pogba too often picking the sideways pass rather than looking to thread the eye of a needle towards Rashford and the ineffective Romelu Lukaku.

Barca boss Ernesto Valverde reacted by introducing midfielders Sergi Roberto and Arturo Vidal from the bench in order to restore to control.

And as United chased in vain for an equaliser, the visitors began to create chances again in the final quarter.

Suarez fired into the side-netting before De Gea used his feet to good effect once more to deny Jordi Alba.

Anthony Martial had one final big opportunity to send United to Catalonia next week on level terms, but a heavy touch allowed the faultless Gerard Pique to intervene and condemn the Red Devils to a fourth defeat in their last six home Champions League games.

Sport24.co.za | CSA’s domestic restructure could see up to 70 players cut – SACA

Cape Town – The South African Cricketers’ Association (SACA) has responded to Cricket South Africa’s (CSA’s) announcement over the weekend on austerity plans and the restructuring of domestic cricket into 12 teams.

“SACA has formally written to CSA twice in the last six weeks to express its concerns relating to CSA’s financial position,” said SACA’s President, Omphile Ramela. 

“To date we haven’t received any reply at all to those letters. It is critical for us as the players association and the representative of all of South Africa’s professional cricketers to know the extent of the financial challenge facing cricket and to be comfortable on how that challenge is being dealt with. The players’ livelihoods depend on cricket’s financial sustainability but this is not only about the players. It is also about the future of the entire game in our country.” 

SACA’s chief executive, Tony Irish, said: “A four year deficit amounting to hundreds of millions of rands is unprecedented in South African cricket and is a serious concern to us as the representative of the players. The future of the game is in the balance and as a critical stakeholder we believe the players have a right to know what the financial position actually is, how it is being dealt with and how this is going to affect not only them but also all other cricket stakeholders. We have asked CSA for clarity and to date it has not provided this. SACA wishes to act responsibly and play its part in dealing with the challenge but in order to do that CSA must play open cards with us and properly engage with us.” 

“CSA has instead gone ahead with the announcement of a restructure of domestic cricket, to effectively merge the franchise and provincial systems, as part of its austerity plan, without any meaningful consultation with SACA and despite the fact that this will directly affect the players. This restructure, announced as part of cost saving measures, is likely to lead to at least 70 players losing their contracts and many other players at franchise level having their earnings reduced. The ‘human impact’ of this is significant.  SACA has a collective agreement in place with CSA, franchises and provinces, known as the MOU, which deals with these issues yet CSA has, in announcing this structure, disregarded that agreement.”

“There are also many important cricket implications in making any change of this nature. These include things like competition structures across the cricket formats, maintaining competitive balance between teams and ensuring that any new structure promotes the retention of our players for Proteas selection. These have not been properly discussed with us either.” 

“As a first step to resolve this situation we urge CSA to respond to us on the concerns which we have raised in writing with it” concluded Irish.